Saturday, May 27, 2006

Tribal Identity

Digby as usual is engaging and insightful. However I can't think of what the "tribal identity" should be for Texas, having grown up in an usual part of this state called "Austin". Anyone out there have a feel for what the populist movement would look like if it took roots in Texas?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Good ol' poo humor from a liberal blogger

I enjoy PinkDome's deliberately sleazy coverage of news and politics. It feels like a cross between reading the Onion and a tabloid gossip column, making it fun to keep up with the news despite the fact that all the quotes appear to be made up, and some of the "news" may not be true. He's also a heavy drinker and loves to blog drunk, especially from public places (and then cabbing or walking home, because drunk driving just isn't funny). But it's little gems like this one that really amuse me :) I'm a simple creature.

By the way, I don't exclusively read liberal blogs on any subject. Though I tend to avoid blogs of any flavor that have no substance or entertainment value, I do still make time for politics and economics with a more centrist or conservative stance. In particular I recommend Austin Centrist, a well written and thought-provoking blog on Central Texas and US politics. I disagree with them on many issues but they have helped keep me from wanting to give up all my possessions and live in a tree.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Getting ready for a road trip, and other blathering

I won't be posting much (if at all) for the next week; I'll be driving to the east coast to live/work for the summer, which should be fun & interesting. Stay tuned....

Until then I wanted to post a bit of economic jibby-jabba. First some background on me so you know not to take my advice too seriously :)

I began investing in a very simple fashion, mostly through ESPP and retirement plans, utilizing prepackaged plans based on my risk comfort and retirement goals. As I've started to learn more about investing, the first items I've focused on are indicators of when to pull out, having seen how badly others were hurt by the tech bubble. I'm trying to make the case for taking a step back from the market now since I feel that we've reached a point where the market's forward progress is sustained on hope and not real fundamentals. Since I am not a speculator, I've chosen to pull back from the conflagration. But now I'm not entirely sure where to reinvest, so I've got a lot more studying to do.
Okay, now back to the reinforcement of my beliefs that things are slowing down. First, some analysis (pdf) on how the supposed positive growth indicator for housing this month was a sandbagged figure (pdf) and is misleading. There's also some interesting analysis on US and worldwide inflation. (Thanks go to Calculated Risk for the link).

Next, some analysis from Calculated Risk that takes a very focused look at the housing market. Interesting charts show mortgage application volume and existing housing inventory.

Finally a post from Angry Bear to add some more recession paranoia to the mix. I'm not willing to be a Chicken Little, and much of my money is still in the markets for the long term.... but I am preparing for H2 2006 / H1 2007 as a tremendous buying opportunity.

Good luck!

[Update:] From another great post on Calculated Risk I've observed again that the announced economic indicators are often sandbagged or cherry picked to spin the best outlook. This time it's the unemployment figures for seasonally adjusted "initial claims" of lost jobs. The announcement was that 40K fewer claims were made than the previous week, a seemingly good indicator. Read more for the full picture of why things aren't so rosy in the job market either. (Sorry to be such a downer, I just don't want to see people burned by a downturn they could have seen coming).

Quick blog post on recovering your money from old accounts

I saw a program on KXAN (the local NBC channel) about recovering money owed to you from misplaced accounts, unreturned refunds, uncashed checks, forgotten deposits, etc. If you think you might have some money owed to you but you were never able to track it down, our Comptroller (and candidate for Governor) Carole Foghorn Strayhorn has made this task easy for you. Search by name and city on this page for a list of potential accounts owed to you. I could not find any in my name (and I wasn't expecting to, either), so I don't know where to take it from there. But hopefully it's a start for those of you missing money.

Note that there are also links to nation-wide search systems if you've lived elsewhere.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Take everything with a grain of salt

When I heard about Iran requiring religious minorities to wear "flair" I was disturbed by the thought but I didn't immediately believe that it would actually get enacted. The Iranian president is a vociferous figurehead whose rhetoric projects an image of greater power than he actually holds, so I have a hard time believing unverified news stories about Iran. So when the flair issue turned out to be a hoax, it came as no surprise to me. The motives for such skullduggery, however, are beyond the pale:

They made it up.... Why? So that months from now, someone hearing about plans to bomb Iran, or seeing footage of bombing on TV, will say to themselves, "Didn't I read that Iran was going to round up all the Jews and make them wear yellow stars like the Nazis? Something like that. Well, good riddance." All the story had to do was live long enough to get into circulation. -- Jim Henley @ High Clearing

Your money isn't safe in emerging markets either

India, Asia, now Mexico & Latin America....

Stock markets around the world have fallen sharply in recent weeks, spooked by concerns that U.S. interest rate hikes could go further than previously expected and by a sell-off in record-high commodities.

Demand for bonds shot up as investors pulled out of the stock market, bringing the bond yield down and helping flatten the curve. Demand would be higher if people weren't nervously awaiting another rate hike due to indicators from the Fed like this one. I see why people aren't too happy these days about the direction the economy is going.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Democrats might well be just as corrupt... if they held power

Democrats don't have any monopoly on moral high ground, apparently. Were Democrats the ones in power today, I imagine corruption with that party could be just as high as it is with Republicans. But for the most part the current scandals, especially the conspiratorial ones, are a taint on the GOP. It's hard to abuse your power when you have none.

As much as I want the current bunch of destructive Congressmen out of office, this is a never ending fight. That is why checks and balances are so damned important!

Update: My response to a post on Casual Soapbox:

Yes, it sucks that it's ruining the narrative. But every time we rely on a carefully crafted narrative the GOP campaign machine tears holes in it. We need more solid indicators that the republicans must go, namely that they have full majorities and still can't solve this country's problems.

I think we should all be offended by this malfeasance purely because it is corrupt, not because it pokes holes in our image of Democrats being perfect. Furthermore giving democrats this comfort zone of thinking that their base is anti-GOP instead of anti-corruption gives them the opportunities to develop the kind of double-standards we typically see in Republicans (e.g. Limbaugh's drug use, which I don't personally give a rat's ass about except for his previous derision of those who abuse drugs).

The best way to use this bad example to our advantage is to convince Republicans why we need checks and balances. Won't the GOP be mad if they shut themselves out by destroying checks and balances before losing power? And does anyone really believe Dems won't abuse power if they get the chance? Both sides win if we can clean up the current mess, because we don't want to be under the same moral rock 12 years from now that the GOP has slithered under.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A bit of background on Chris Bell... and other ruminations

Although I know very little about Chris Bell and still haven't decided if I intend to vote for him, this article from Texas Monthly (no registration required?! gasp.) starts to give you a feel for how this race could very likely turn out. And the more I try to understand the voter demographic, the more I realize that Kinky Friedman is going to pull votes from Strayhorn and Bell, not from Perry. And it's without any goal of debate or any real ideas for inducing change that this bull proceeds to take a massive dump all over the china shop. His cynicism is refreshing but not fulfilling, so his confrontational one-liners have no intention of being debated. If you've noticed, Kinky has a very hard time engaging in dialog after his stump speeches, preferring to answer few questions and stumbling over those he does field. When I do my research I plan to study Bell and Strayhorn before I consider spending any of my time on Kinky.

And by the way, for those of you thinking of making a "fun" decision this year: if you have a smirk on your face when you talk about voting for Kinky, think back to how many times that smirk has smacked you in the ass at a later time, say at work or in college. How 'bout let's not try to come off as a cynical but informed armchair politico, and just tell the truth: politics is really boring, and you'd like some drama for a change? Remember Perot? That was fun!

Conservatives mean business, and the constituents aren't going to risk their comfortable outcome for the chance to show some principles they believe in, they kind of like it force fed (e.g. Fox News). "Plus, the office is just a figurehead, no real change can occur there. But we're still not going to permit a Democrat to win" - that stern and proper coworker that just gets under your skin with his smarminess. [Update: Just read a reaffirming post by an irreverent favorite of mine, the News Blog]

Strayhorn voters are libertarian voters. The actual libertarian candidate (yes, there are at least 5 candidates for governor this year) doesn't stand a chance. These folks know that we're all going to hell in a handbasket, but they want to make sure theirs is a fast yellow handbasket with just enough room for three chicks. BTW I've never met a woman with this kind of approach to politics. And it's not entirely a reflection on Strayhorn, these voters think that she's their best chance to protect their money. Therefore I also believe that there will be a contingent of empowered women who have deep interest in seeing other women penetrate a man's world and turn it inside out.

And the rest are either democrats, or voters too apathetic to be cynical, whose believe in the system rotted away long, long ago, along with their smirks.

Friday, May 19, 2006

busting the myth of supply-side economics

Hearing arguments for supply-side economics always gives me feeling that I'm listening to a very effective salesman for a pyramid scheme. It's possible to make it sound compelling, but the real evidence simply isn't there from everything I've seen. I'd love to learn more about what makes people think supply-side economics is viable. Especially if you can explain this.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

This is why I don't read the Austin American Statesman...

...or its web presence. I don't watch TV either. I get all of my news online. What a warped view I must have?!

Speaking up on the immigration debate

I've got a number of thoughts on immigration, but they are mostly framed opposition to the current extremism and hateful rhetoric that amounts to thinly veiled racism against Mexicans. As far as the core issues go, I openly admit that I am not informed enough to decide which series of compromises are fair and appropriate. But many conservatives aren't framing this issue in terms of compromises and they have taken a very hard line on this, going so far as to attack their dear leader on the one issue he's ever shown interest in considering compromise.

I understand concerns about excessive immigration burdening our health care systems and schools, many of which can barely function as it is. The closest analogue I can think of is the profoundly negative impact Wal-Mart has on its surrounding communities, especially in terms of pushing their uninsured and underinsured employees onto the public health care system. But they have also increased our nation's poverty levels and reliance on government assistance, and Wal-mart takes full advantage of part-time workers and a minimum wage that hasn't increased in 9 years. So perhaps the immigration debate should be more about foreign relations - why is Mexico not doing more to provide quality education and social programs when the country's income distribution is even more imbalanced than ours?

But I have yet to hear a conservative complain about Wal-Mart's negative impact on our country. Along with many other inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the current debate, these reasons make me feel that the immigration confrontation isn't about solving problems via well constructed compromises. It's about the right wing wanting to pick a fight which they hope they could actually win.

Update: This is pretty funny so I thought I'd lighten my post by adding this quote from PinkDome - "Can you imagine if a mass influx of gay Mexicans happened? Holy shit, the right's collective heads would explode." - SuperWow!

Mismanaged federal deficit

Angry Bear has a post graphically depicting the nature of our deficit in order to dispel the myth that the administration was at the mercy of uncontrollable economic conditions.

While it's entirely possible that the administration is simply this incompetent, I believe that the mismanaged deficit is intentional. Unlike spending on social programs, the rich get richer from defense spending and the legislated tax changes. Their goal is to deepen the deficit, pocket their profits, and weather out a recession that hits so hard that social programs will have to be cut just to stay afloat.

The wealthy are obviously not opposed to government spending, they just want to make sure they are the only ones to benefit from it. Simple, classic greed at its worst. Our country is being Enron'd.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Compassionate Conservatives

I guess these folks in Black Jack, Missouri, are just normal conservatives.

CPI increases fears of inflation, rate hikes

Reader Nikki commented in an earlier thread that the latest CPI report reinforces my economic outlook. And while I'd love to be wrong and have the economy rebound, I'm definitely investing in the wrong places if it does. Also thanks to Detroit Dan for helping explain the current behavior of bonds, and for giving me insight as to why countries like China are so willing to buy our debt when they're growing so rapidly and needing to invest in infrastructure:

If the Chinese and Saudis were to stop buying our bonds, which they purchase to recycle their dollars (and keep their currencies undervalued), then long term rates would rise as there would be less demand for bonds. Less demand for bonds => higher interest rates to attract buyers => steeper yield curve. If the value of the dollar is falling, then higher interest rates will be needed to compensate for the loss in value of the dollar vis a vis other currencies...
It's just a way for them to keep their currency undervalued to strengthen their exports. Even if China stopped pegging the Yuan to a fixed fraction of the dollar, they would make sure that it "floats" in the right direction via currency manipulation such as this.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Breaking news on the NSA wiretapping story

Not phone wires, internet switches. Massive network interconnects. I'm not sure when this message will surface in the MSM, but I've read hints of this a while back and it's gaining more attention this time. But, if everyone is so concerned about what's really going on, why isn't Congress doing something to address this, something called oversight? I think they need to be held accountable for Bush's atrocities. There's a reason they're called the Rubber Stamp Congress. And that means you too, Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton.

Bush loses Texas support, base is branding him a "liberal"

This is news to me, but apparently Bush has a negative net approval in Texas. His rating is down to 42%, though it's been lower. However I also found some other interesting tidbits. Only 3 states remain in overall support of Bush, and his base is rapidly eroding. My, how times have changed.

This wasn't intended to be a post laden with schadenfreude, I do have a point. I've heard many folks theorize about the manner in which conservatives will turn against Bush, and now I'm starting to believe them. My belated belief is due to the initially outlandish suggestion that conservatives will label Bush a liberal! The arguments are compelling, but I didn't think they would hold true.

  • "In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed." - Rick Perlstein
  • "There is no such thing as a bad conservative. 'Conservative' is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives' good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals." - the inimitable Digby
Bush has failed the "true conservative way", whatever that happens to be at the moment. It's obviously not fiscal discipline or international isolationism, and they've been awfully quiet on Iraq and terrorism lately. Even gay marriage is being muted by the likes of Laura Bush, though some believe that's just a prop for the appearance of "internal dialogue" that doesn't exist.

No, this time the issue is immigration. And even before Bush's speech last night there were some from within his own base discussing impeachment. They declared that Bush is violating his obligation to protect this country because his stance on immigration is too soft in their eyes. After his speech last night, there's significantly growing discontent in his base. Read some excerpts on what the rightwing community is saying about Bush.

Wow.... they're actually calling him a liberal. And while it's good to see his support eroding just as his administration tries to cement their truly cynical manipulations of this country's political infrastructure, it's disappointing to see that in the minds of the rightwing it's not their ideology that has failed but rather their leader. As such, we can't count on these people to learn from their mistakes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The next bursting bubble

The next bubble is about to burst. No, it's not the housing bubble, though it's directly related to it. In my opinion, it's the consumer confidence bubble. And it will start as early as this coming fall or summer.

Personal savings has maintained a persistent streak in the negative, which boggles my mind. I thought that Congress was the only group of people so broadly and reliably irresponsible with money. Apparently though people have been borrowing against the equity on their house, or indirectly using their growth in house equity to offset debts accumulated in other areas or to justify spending money instead of saving for retirement.

Given that consumers power 2/3 of the American economy, there are several indicators that the stock market will feel the pinch from declined consumerism:

  • As housing valuations stagnate and speculators dump unwanted properties on the market, homes will become increasingly difficult to sell at the price that people feel they are entitled to. A feedback loop will fuel this downward spiral, though perhaps not as dramatically as the tech burst.
  • However consumers are already showing signs of lacking confidence in the economy. Producer prices are still high, driving inflation and causing increasing interest rate hikes from the Fed.
  • Demand for Gold is up, often an indicator of cautious investors hedging against inflation.
  • And despite inflation, we are seeing very little improvement in wages or job growth, leading to a situation known as stagflation: stagnation in growth with broadly increasing prices. This has a profound impact on consumerism. And the biggest contributor to rising prices is the cost of oil, which will only get worse during the busy summer travel season, setting us up for a major pinch if this coming winter is less mild than the last.
  • Increasing interest rates usually cause yields on all bonds to rise due to a better rate of return, however we have seen the yields on short-term bonds rising faster than long-term, causing the yield curve to flatten. [Edit:] Since prices on bonds move in the opposite direction as the yields produced, it's important to note that curve has flattened due to high demand for long-term bonds, leading to lower yields on those bonds. (Thanks to reader Detroit Dan for that clarification!)
  • Demand for long-term bonds has been high due to the high interest rates, but once the Fed is done raising interest rates and demand spikes for long-term bonds, the yield will drop further and an inverted yield curve could occur, a frequent indicator of an impending recession caused by widespread pessimism in the health of the economy.
  • Given that the PPI is still high (and increasing with the cost of oil), the only thing that may cause the Fed to stop raising interest rates is a weakened economy, where stagnation is worse than inflation and the Fed can only attempt to fix one. This again reinforces my belief that the yield curve will invert, and that a recession will occur due to widespread pessimism.
  • Carrying this trend further, increasing interest rates are going to hammer home owners that have ARMs. Combined with the inability to sell houses, consumers are going to have to start watching their spending more carefully.
  • Furthermore, the market often softens in the second year of the second term of a president, as the "honeymoon phase" wears off and investors are less hopeful about the prospects of seeing any of the red meat thrown their way as promised the campaigning period. This time should be no exception, as this president has become one of the earliest lame ducks in recent history. The GOP, despite its majority, is increasingly seen as ineffectual. Case in point: Whither privatization of social security?
  • Finally, we are almost 4 years into a Bull market, albeit a weak one. But even weak bulls are usually followed by bear markets, and we're about due for one.
So I believe we're heading straight into a recession, and I've been moving my money accordingly. Let me know if my thinking is awry, I'm new to all this.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

At first I was skeptical...

I can't believe they didn't background check Stephen Colbert before inviting him to speak at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. I heard that it was hilarious, but I was a little skeptical given his target audience. What I didn't realize was that his target audience was not the people in front of him that evening, but rather people like us watching this video on TV or over the internet. If only everyone had the guts to stand up for their beliefs like this....

Rather than spoil the pace of Colbert's well-timed delivery with choice quotes, I'll let you decide if you'd rather skim the condensed version of the transcript.

Spying on all of us

Glenn Greenwald has another fantastic opinion piece on how the Bush administration avoids any opportunity to reinforce its legally questionable practices by getting approval from the judicial branch (i.e. courts such as FISA) or even the friendly DoJ in its own executive branch. One would think their modus operandi is one of asking forgiveness instead of permission, but this administration has rarely ever apologized sincerely for anything. They'd simply rather keep things secret than ask for permission, and they clearly do not want to risk disapproval of their program within their government since they would proceed anyway. Actually, I'm convinced that they don't believe they should even have to ask for permission. Bush is, after all, the decider.

Sometimes I come across as paranoid (see my Coachella entry re: the AT&T blue room), but as my dad is fond of saying, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." This is a creepy, scary administration.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Back from vacation...

I'm back from my vacation in California, where I had a blast at Coachella and enjoyed San Diego immensely. Here are some musings:

  • At Coachella there was an AT&T "blue room", a covered tent where you could relax in mild air-conditioning, recharge yourself and your cell phone, and even surf the web on their internet-connected laptops. After that weekend the NSA is probably still backlogged with such a fresh load of e-mails from suspicious social deviants.
  • There was a neat tent where you could upload your photos into a common area, presumably to share with other Coachella participants. I didn't bring a camera, so hopefully I can find some pictures there with me in the background scratching my ass or something.
  • The audience was a visibly different cross-section of society this year. Many fewer goths than last year (drawn by NiN and Peter Murphy), and many more gays and lesbians (coming for Madonna, Scissor Sisters, etc.).
  • Higher/harder barrier of entry seemed to cut down on the number of jerks there as compared to ACL fest or especially SxSW. But they still let me in some how :)
Some unrelated thoughts now that I'm back and I'm catching up on news...
  • Google Calendar kicks ass. Its interface has some rough edges mostly due to limitations of its web interface, but it's accessible from any location and it is extremely easy and intuitive. It's the best calendaring system I've seen. I've also linked in other calendars, including US holidays, interesting astronomical events (e.g. meteor showers), and interesting Austin events (e.g. local music happenings, tech-related or job-related seminars, etc.).
  • Our school district is managed by idiots. They're spending $60K to refurbish lockers that have been unused for 10 years due to drugs/weapons at Kealing Jr High. They're justifying this in order to satisfy minimum requirements listed on a poorly written district guidelines.
  • The GOP is riddled with scandals of drugs, sex, and extravagant spending.... just like the good ol' days when the Dems ran the show! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.